As wildfires continue to tear through parts of California and Colorado, Google has launched new tools to help people stay informed about their progress. Starting today, Google search queries for information about the fires will turn up more than just news stories and alerts they’ll also display maps of the fires’ boundaries. The Google Maps app will display the same wildfire boundaries to people attempting to enjoy the height of summer nearby, and will also provide warnings and “ambient alerts” to those who begin to approach affected areas.
Google Maps will also update users with road closures and provide them with directions that help them avoid danger and roadblocks. If someone is looking at an area near a blaze on Google Maps, they’ll get an alert.
Getting accurate information to people near a wildfire can save lives. It’s also a constant challenge for emergency responders because the situation can change rapidly, while hearsay online can quickly drown out reputable sources. Google developed the new mapping feature with input from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) as part of an effort to make important updates easier to find.
When people searched for information on wildfires on Google in the past, they ran into one of two problems, Ruha Devanesan, crisis response product partnerships lead at Google, said on an August 19th press call. There was either not enough information or too much to reasonably sort through. In the latter case, speculation and unvetted sources might lead people into danger instead of safety.
As Google’s Crisis Response Lead Yossi Matias pointed out in a blog post, the National Interagency Fire Center is forecasting above-normal wildfire potential throughout the United States with a window of risk that extends at least through September. And of course, the potential for devastating wildfires extends well beyond the US: Large swaths of Canada’s prairies could also be at risk, and as of the end of July, wildfires in Russia had burned an expanse of forests and steppes larger than Greece. Unfortunately, these public-facing fire tracking tools remain exclusive to the United States for now.